By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express
High school students may not be in class next week.
That’s because the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF) – the union that represents teachers in public high schools – has set a strike date for April 20. If a deal isn’t reached by then, teachers will walk off the job.
It was announced last month by OSSTF president Paul Elliott last month that teachers from seven public school districts – including Durham – would go on strike by the end of April if a new deal weren’t reached.
Elliott said this was because teachers have been without a contract since August 2014 and “our patience is wearing thin.”
“We’ve been in a position where we can bargain with the boards…since December, and we’ve had very few bargaining dates set and not a lot of focus at the bargaining table, and that’s what we need to see,” Dave Barrowclough, the president of OSSTF’S District 13 – which includes Durham Region – tells The Oshawa Express. “We need to be able to deal with issues that we haven’t been able to deal with for about seven years and it’s been seven months since our contract expired. We’re trying to focus the board on sitting down and coming to a deal. That’s certainly our intent. That’s what we’d prefer to see happen.”
While Barrowclough says he won’t discuss the specific issues – he cited an agreement signed between the union and the school board that they won’t “bargain through the media” – the issues pertain to “issues that are important to the day-to-day working lives of our teachers and what happens within the schools.”
Over at the Durham District School Board (DDSB), officials are working on a plan for if students are locked out of the classroom. The priority, says DDSB chair Mike Barrett, is the college- and university-bound Grade 12 students.
“We’re ensuring whatever labour action takes place doesn’t interfere or disadvantage those students that are applying for post-secondary education,” Barrett says. “Because it’s limited to seven boards and not all boards, what we have to do is be particularly sensitive to students…in those seven boards that may or may not be affected and that they’re not in a disadvantage compared to other students in the other boards.”
Barrett adds that Grade 12 students would likely have their final marks determined by the work already done to date this semester.
As for the remaining students, Barrett says board members are working on various contingency plans, as there is no way to know exactly how long a potential strike might last.
“We’re working on understanding other potential scenarios depending on how long the strike may or may not last on how to ensure students don’t lose their year and what absence from the class may have impact on the curriculum for the balance of the year and into the next year,” he says, adding that if the school year does not resume, students would return in the fall in the next grade level, but would be taught key parts of the curriculum that will be needed in that grade.
Barrowclough says that while the strike option is on the table, he remains confident a deal will be reached before that time comes.
“I’m quite hopeful that we can reach a deal. I think we could if we got together and sat down and focused ourselves, we could do this. That is…our wish, that is what we want to see happen,” he says. “While there are some items that we might be further ahead on or further apart than others, it’s never a full deal until it’s a deal.”
Barrett says that while meetings are taking place, it will be difficult to have a deal in place locally if there isn’t one on the provincial level.
“There’s a lot of steps still to be taken, but I think it’s important to understand that a local agreement is not likely to be made in the absence of a provincial agreement,” he says. “It’s going to be a difficult journey in the next week, and I think leadership both locally and provincially on the OSSTF has made it very clear that action is going to happen on the 20th and I would just continue to urge that we continue to meet and continue to work toward solutions on behalf of our kids.”
Most important, Barrowclough concludes, is that the union feels teachers need a better contract in hand, especially considering they have been without one since August.
“Our members are quite frustrated,” he says. “It’s been a long period of time and they really need to see some changes with the way things are done. It’s not something we want to do or feel like we have no other choice. We need to focus that table.”